Charles Dickens' sometime literary heir, John Irving, once noted, "Each Christmas, we are assaulted with a new [version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"]: indeed, we're fortunate if all we see is the delightful Alastair Sim." Robert Zemeckis' new digital version, starring Jim Carrey, is an assault, a horrible mismatch of technique and story. But the Sim version is a delight - and it's at the Senator for the holidays.
Sim starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in a 1951 British production, written by Noel Langley (who co-wrote "The Wizard of Oz" and wrote and directed "The Pickwick Papers") and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. The Senator will play it this weekend and Christmas weekend on a double-bill with Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." It fits both the season and our current cold-weather snap: G.K. Chesterton wrote that the original story "owes much of its hilarity to the fact of it being a tale of winter, and a very wintry winter." Dickens, and this movie, put dead-center the frigid December surrounding Scrooge, as well as the spiritual glacier under his skin. The contrast between Scrooge's solitary gruel and a couple of toasty family reunions is infinitely inviting - even, of course, to Scrooge. The spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, who take him on a life-altering odyssey in just one night, stress the importance of generosity and kindness all year round. Dickens acknowledges the religious roots of the holiday but calls for fellow feeling, here on Earth. This movie captures his combination of high-mindedness and heartiness, of social realism and aesthetic gaiety. Gusto clings to every detail, like the boy-size Christmas turkey that Scrooge buys for his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit.
The actor playing Scrooge sets the pitch of every "Christmas Carol," and Sim in this version is tip-top and irrepressible. Though kids laugh at Sim's vicious glee and the way he masticates his lines, they hate his Scrooge until he is transformed. Sim's cleverness and panache amuse adults throughout. And the film contains one soaring, lyrical moment reminiscent of John Huston's great "The Dead." In Dickens, when Scrooge attends his neglected nephew's Christmas party, the man's wife, whom Scrooge has shunned, sings a "simple air" that melts his heart. In this movie, the simple air is "Barbara Allen" - a song that the movie's composer, Richard Addinsell, has already linked with Scrooge's frail, beloved sister. The shifts of expression in Sim's face and the melancholy pull of the ballad turn the scene into a tour de force of plaintiveness.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is Capra's attempt to do a Dickensian fable in mid-20th century America. His theme is the same one George Orwell found in Dickens: "If men would behave decently, the world would be decent." James Stewart gives a signature performance as George Bailey, the small-town good guy who can't rise in the world because he's too busy giving a leg up to everyone else. This lenient, generous home financier galls the town Scrooge, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who hates Bailey not only because Bailey's low-cost suburban developments threaten the value of his own tenement holdings, but also because the Bailey family has the two things Potter lacks: humanity and friends.
Luckily, thanks to Stewart, Bailey is richly, unassertively humane, not some virtuous drag. The star streaks his warmth and enthusiasm with anger, ambition and temperament. What Stewart projects from his core is that Bailey is a reluctant rube; his fury at being provincial puts an unexpected edge on Capra's corniness. There's genuine emotion in the coyly avid courtship between Bailey and the girl who idolizes him (played with sexiness and strength by Donna Reed).
But Capra's Scrooge - Potter - doesn't have a change of heart. The movie is a classic in its own right, but it's like "A Christmas Carol" told from the point of view of Bob Cratchit. And that shift in perspective doesn't just signal a variation on Dickens' theme, but alters its comic-dramatic scope and moral dimension. Capra was a great entertainer, but Dickens was a genius who dramatized the spiritual resurrection possible in the least wonderful life.
The Friends of the Senator present the double-bill of "It's A Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol" today through Sunday and next Thursday and Friday, with matinees on Saturday, Sunday and Christmas Day. Admission to the double-feature is $6 worth of nonperishable food items and/or $6 at the box office. The collection and proceeds go to the GEDCO (Govans Ecumenical Development Corp.) CARES food drive. The Senator is at 5904 York Road near Northern Parkway.
Other screenings around town: : Planning to wait for crowds to dissipate for "Avatar"? You can see a movie that combines an enticing depiction of a lost world with a story that movingly depicts the spirit of adventure lying dormant in most of us in "Up," the latest Pixar masterwork, at a 2 p.m. Saturday screening at the Pratt Central Library (400 Cathedral St.). ... Some of us thought that "Manhattan" (1979) was, with "Interiors" (1978), the start of a mistaken, self-important phase for Woody Allen, but it always had admirers who preferred it to "Annie Hall" (1977). The uninitiated may seek it out for its depiction of the wry, tortured Allen persona conducting an affair with a 17-year-old girl (the terrific Mariel Hemingway). It screens at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St., at noon Saturday and 7 p.m. Monday.